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John Willis on why Schaefer should go

September 03, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Like Washington County's own Tim Mayberry, Maryland Secretary of State John Willis knows what it's like to run against a political legend. For Mayberry it was the late Louis Goldstein. For Willis it's former governor William Donald Schaefer, now Maryland's comptroller.

But even though Willis is a long-time friend and associate of Gov. Parris Glendening, he insists that the governor didn't put him up to entering the comptroller's race, though the incumbent and the former governor have developed an intense dislike for one another.

In news reports, Willis has been quoted as expressing concern over what he perceives as Schaefer's rude ways, but he insists he's not running just because he doesn't care for his opponent's manners.

Instead, Willis said he's concerned that the gloomy forecasts being tossed around by Schaefer and others about Maryland's budget - and the financial train wreck that many predict for next year - are a part of a strategy to grease the skids for the introduction of casino gambling.

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In spite of everything, Willis said, the state managed to finish the year with a $309 million surplus. And Willis said the state's bond rating remains high, and the thing that's hurt Maryland the most - the shrinking of capital gains revenue - is the same thing every other state is dealing with.

"All the other economic indicators in the state are pretty solid. It simply doesn't call for this kind of rhetoric to make it appear to be something that it's not," he said.

But there are three major financial challenges facing the state, Willis said. They include the educational improvements suggested by the Thornton Commission, increased costs for Medicare and the growth in mandated expenditures for state programs.

To find way to raise cash for those, Willis is looking to a commission now studying the state's tax structure, which will report before the next session of the General Assembly. Willis said he isn't certain what may come out of that, but said he does feel the state shouldn't be too dependent on any one form of revenue.

"You have to look at the whole range of taxes," Willis said.

The personal income tax is fine now, he said, but said that the state's sales tax hasn't kept pace with rates in neighboring states.

Aren't sales taxes regressive because they hit hardest on those who can least afford to pay them?

"Casinos are more regressive and even predatory," he said

Willis acknowledged that expanding gambling would be an easy choice for lawmakers wary of being tagged with the "tax-and-spend" label. But he argued that the ill effects of expanded gambling are far worse than a tax increase.

"I'd much rather see an adjustment to our basic tax structure. At the end of a day in a casino operation, what have you produced?" he said.

Aside from the issue of gambling and what you see as Schaefer's abrasive style, are there other substantive differences between your approach and his?

In the last three years, Willis said, Schaefer created an in-house enforcement division in the comptroller's office, led by the former head of the Maryland State Police.

"The enforcement divisions adds some costs, but it also sends the wrong message," he said. He added that he's had some complaints about its tactics and fears it could damage the state's image in the same way some strong-arm enforcement by the federal Internal Revenue Service harmed the U.S. government's image.

Willis also said he disagreed with some of Schaefer's votes as a member of the state's Board of Public Works. Willis said the former governor voted against more than 20 projects involving land preservation programs like Rural Legacy.

"I view land as more than space available for development," Willis said.

Are there problems with the way the comptroller's office is being run?

"There are a lot of good professionals there who are continuing to do a good job. To some extent, how people perform is due to the leadership of any office, because it affects their attitude and their enthusiasm to some extent. I think I would bring a whole new initiative to that," he said.

Willis, 56, is an attorney who served in the Judge Advocate General Corps from 1968 to 1971 and as chief of staff when Glendening was the Prince George's County Executive from 1990 to 1994. He's been endorsed by Harry Hughes, the state's former governor, and former congressman Michael Barnes.

Before we began our interview, I told Willis that last year Schaefer had been the featured speaker at a volunteer appreciation dinner held in Hagerstown by the Parent-Child Center, a United Way agency which combats child abuse - and on whose board I sit. Other might have been wary, but if Willis was, he sure didn't show it. In fact, he seemed almost relentlessly upbeat during our session.

"I have a good deal of confidence in the core Democratic voters who know they have a choice. I've gotten a lot of support from a lot of individuals," he said.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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